Just the weekend remains before European basketball (and by extension, NBA) fans get to enjoy some tremendous high-level hoops competition in the 2011 Eurobasket competition. Despite the seeming overload of underdogs – full-on 14 of the 24 teams in the tournament are ranked 34th or lower in the official FIBA rankings – the first week still contains a notable number of compelling matchups to spark the interest and make a profound effect on the next round.
BallinEurope will be attending pool play in Panevėžys, but will certainly put in an effort to track the following 10 games; for best results, BiE recommends marking the calendar for the followingsure-to-be compelling matches.
31 August: Serbia vs. Italy. BiE’s got France and Germany taking the top two spots in Group B; this game could therefore shape the race for number three (and advancement to round two) early. Team Italy will have to avoid its traditional slow start in international competition if they seek to compete against a talented-if-uncertain Serbia side; the next day sees Germany coming to the court with a team well suited to beat Italia at its own game.
31 August: Montenegro vs. Macedonia. Group D is not only loaded with regional rivals including Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and these two teams, but the third spot in the group appears totally up for grabs. This opener will surely affect all pool play in the group thereafter.
1 September: Russia vs. Georgia. Watch out for Georgia in this tournament. Of the seven teams added by FIBA officials after what everyone thought was last year’s qualifying round, these guys have the best chance to advance. While Russia has looked like a juggernaut this month in exhibition games, Georgia looks like team on the rise – despite losing to Latvia the other day – with Zaza Pachulia playing out of his mind lately and speed enough to keep up with the Russians at their pace. One question: Can they crack David Blatt’s pernicious defensive sets?
2 September: Turkey vs. Lithuania. Heck, you might as well carve in stone the advancement of Lithuania, Turkey and Spain from Group A, as the only question here would appear to be the records these three sides take into the second round of pool play. While the Turkey-Spain game figures to be a straight-up battle of big men, this one looks like the proverbial contrast of styles, as Lithuania’s dependence on finding the open man on the wing and three-point shooting meets the potentially dominating half-court offense with Omer Asik, Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova taking feeds from the awakened Hedo Turkoglu.
2 September: France vs. Germany. For NBA fans looking forward to the Chicago Bulls-Dallas Mavericks championship series in 2012, well … will you settle for Dirk Nowitzki vs. Joakim Noah?
4 September: Lithuania vs. Spain. In what could be the gem of the first round, the hosts take on the defending champs, having split warmup games as each defended home court. While the crowd in Panevėžys may not approach that of the recent Kauno Arena game versus Spain in size, you can bet the 13th man will be a factor in this one. Will Lithuania want this win – and therefore possibly bring a 5-0 record into the next round – more than any other in this tourney? BiE believes so.
4 September: Ukraine vs. Georgia. Though Ukraine hasn’t been particularly awesome in exhibition games, this team has enough talented big men – BiE’s thinking guys like Kyrylo Fesenko, Serhiy Lishchuk and Viacheslav Kravtsov, the last of which has been quite the contributor in August games – to stay competitive. Depending on Georgia’s success at this point in the tourney, Team Ukraine just might squeak through to round two. Besides, who can write off Mike “The Czar” Fratello?
5 September: Spain vs. Turkey. Visualize Spain losing two games in a row … it could happen, particularly if the Asiks and Kanters are willing to play bruisers against those dominant Gasol Brothers. Pau and Marc give Team Spain the strongest combination at center of any team in 2011 Eurobasket, but BiE believes Turkey on a good day can stifle this advantage … now they just have to figure out what to do in defending the point. And Juan Carlos Navarro. And … oh, never mind, Turkey, bang it up inside, BiE tells ya!
5 September: Greece vs. Croatia.
5 September: Slovenia vs. Russia. These games should determine the no. 1 spots in groups C and D, respectively, and one can imagine all four teams entering the last day of first-round pool play undefeated. While tending to overrate Greece and underrate Slovenia, there’s no way BiE is gonna hedge bets on these games yet, but both should be dandies to close things out. And is Blatt vs. Bozidar Maljkovic the single most compelling battle of coaches in the whole of Eurobasket or what…?